The Stupid 365 Project, Day 27: Sir Laurence

October 28th, 2010

Yes, that Sir Laurence.  It’s star time again.

Somewhat late in Olivier’s career – he was around seventy — his adopted son, David Plowright, became head of drama at Granada Television, up in Manchester, which was owned by an old-time mogul named Sir Lew Grade.  Grade had bulldozed his way into national carriage, meaning that Granada was essentially its own British network, like the BBC but substantially livelier.  Olivier was not as strong as he had once been, and he and David dreamed up a project that would keep him acting and producing without having to fly to film sets all over the world or do long runs on the stage.

It was called Laurence Olivier Presents, and the idea was to take some classic American plays and some major American talent and make a bunch of shows that could air not only in England but also in the States.  It’s a measure of how different things are now (this was in the late 1970s) that NBC jumped at a bunch of videotaped theater pieces, some of which would star the world’s greatest living actor. To get that on the air today, Olivier would have to be cast against Snooki.  (On the other hand, not to be unduly pessimistic, Pamela Anderson is behind us.)

The first time I went to Granada, they were doing William Inge’s “Come Back, Little Sheba,” with a cast that included Olivier, Joanne Woodward, and Carrie Fisher, still Princess Leia in most people’s eyes.  I went onto the set with a certain amount of trepidation — the man was one of my idols and had been since I first saw “Henry V” at the age of twelve — and introduced myself to Olivier, who promptly told me to call him Larry.  That was clearly impossible, so I sidestepped it and invited him and his costars to dinner either that night or the next.  Olivier seemed delighted.  “That sounds marvelous, Boysie,” he said.  And I was Boysie from then on, for a couple of years, in fact.  (I wasn’t all that young, but I looked young to him.)

That night, Larry — whom I still avoided addressing by name — Miss Woodward, and Miss Fisher and I all went to dinner in some ancient, cavernous restaurant that had once been a cotton mill, back when Manchester was the cotton capital of the world.  I asked everyone about wine, and Olivier lit up a bit said, “Why don’t I take care of that?” and then he leaned across the table, locked eyes with me, and said, “Drink a little, do you, Boysie?”  There was an unspoken but unmistakable challenge in the question.  I allowed as to how I could hold my own, at which point Joanne Woodward, who had been there for a couple of weeks, said, “Oh, dear.”

With Sir Larry topping up my glass and then – to be fair — topping up his own, we had a three-hour dinner that was the greatest one-man show I’ve ever seen.  Miss Woodward and Miss Fisher barely spoke.  Sir Larry talked about his youth, his lifelong “rivalry” with Sir John Gielgud, horrific and hilarious mistakes he had made onstage,  an endless series of anecdotes about Peter O’Toole, the difference between film and stage acting, and why he always wore either a false nose or used makeup to change the shape of his forehead.  (When he auditioned, as a very young man, for the Old Vic, Lilian Baylis, who ran it, passed her thumb over the center of his brow and down his nose and said, “Some weakness there.”)   Miss Baylis had been dead for forty years and Sir Larry had been generally acknowledged the world”s greatest actor for thirty, and he was still trying to overcome that weakness.

And always, he was pouring for me.  The white wine gave way to red wine which gave way to a different red wine which gave way to a sweet dessert wine which gave way to cognac, and he poured for me, watched me, matched me drink for drink, did his virtuoso performance, and, over the course of those three hours, drank me under the table.  I mean completely under the table.  Seventy something, having put in a full day’s work both acting and directing, he intentionally out-drank, by a large margin, a man in his early thirties who could throw it back with the best of them, in his provincial neck of the woods.  But now I was in the Bigs, and I was hopelessly outclassed.

I dragged myself out of a coma around ten the next morning and crawled on my hands and knees to the Victorian bathroom of the hotel I was in, which was dominated by a tub seven feet long.  I sat on the floor, my forehead against the cold porcelain, while the tub filled with water and then — somehow — got myself into it.  After about 30 minute, with nothing but my nose above water, I began to get cold and found that I could use my left foot to turn on the hot spigot, which was about all I did until noon.  Then I got out, puckered all over, dried myself with trembling hands, took a dozen aspirin, and shuddered my way over to the studio.

It was a big stage, mostly dark, with a small living-room set very brightly lighted in the far corner.  Olivier was on the set with Woodward, every hair in place, face gleaming with health, going at it hammer and tongs.  I stayed about twenty feet back during the take, not wanting to make a noise while sound was rolling, and the moment the lights went down, Olivier turned to me and said, in a theater-filling voice, “HOW YA FEELING, BOYSIE?”

I worked with him on and off for a couple of years thereafter and was never again challenged to a drinking match.  To be candid, I still don’t understand why he did it in the first place — in retrospect, it feels almost like a territory-marking exercise but good Lord — I was who I was and he was Laurence Olivier.  Through the remainder of our acquaintance he was unfailingly pleasant, even when he was having frail days, and, beneath the jokes and the gloss of bonhomie, unutterably remote.  And he continued to call me Boysie.  I think he’d just been forced to learn and remember too many names in his life.  I never did bring myself to call him Larry.

Later on, I’ll write about the star-crossed production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” he did for TV with Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner.  After the next four or five posts about disposable razors, that is.

19 Responses to “The Stupid 365 Project, Day 27: Sir Laurence”

  1. fairyhedgehog Says:

    What a brilliant story.

    My only brush with fame was to get Terry Pratchett to autograph a book for me. That’s not exactly in the same league! (It’s still a treasured memory, though.)

    I’m enjoying seeing what you come up with every day.

  2. Suzanna Says:

    Great story, Tim!

    I am glad Sir Laurence never had to endure Snooki or the likes of her, or witness the lamentable direction television has gone.

    Not with you on the plastic disposable razors though. Never found one that doesn’t wound and permanently scar.

    Looking forward to Spirit House and anything more you want to write about Sir Laurence.

  3. Lisa Kenney Says:

    That’s a fantastic story! You have certainly led a wildly interesting life. I love hearing stories like this. More please!

  4. EverettK Says:

    LOVELY story. You know, Tim, there’s going to be a book in this blog eventually. Out of 365 entries, I KNOW there’s going to be enough “high quality” ones (not that moaning about Spirit House crip-crap 🙂 ) that they could easily be collected into an e-book.

    I know you said you started this blog as a way to get you writing earlier in the day, but that doesn’t mean you can’t major double use of the effort.

  5. EverettK Says:

    Not ‘major’, ‘make’. “doesn’t mean you can’t MAKE double use of the effort.”

    Also, I can see you getting a package of the “celebrity blogs” (mini-memoirs) sold to a magazine.

  6. Karen Carter Says:

    Oh yes, definitely a book in progress. Heard a Peter O’Toole interview recently during which O’Toole talked only of Sir Laurence. Don’t think I’ll ever forget the story of the two of them doing pushups together before filming to pump up their biceps. Have a feeling that turned into a bit of a competition, too. 🙂

  7. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, all — glad you enjoyed it. It was a privilege to work with him and to get to know him, to the extent that anyone really got to know him. He’s supposed to have said once, “Inside every actor, there’s another actor.”

    FHH, I’m enjoying seeing what I come up with every day, too. The whole time I was slaving over “Spirit House,” I was kicking myself for ever having promised it, and now that it’s time to put it up I’m looking at the next three days like they’re a year off. (Although I’m still dicking around with the ending to the story.) This is a fascinating experience, I have to say.

    Zanna, He missed a lot by exiting when he did, much of it definitely not good. That whole generation of actors — him, Gielgud, Richardson, Redgrave — had their feet in another world completely, the theater of the 1920s and 30s, when people read and talked and went to plays and there was no television and (obviously) no online. And Shakespeare mattered and good writing mattered, and people cut themselves with old-style (brrrrr) razors. If I ever find a way to get back there, I’ll skip that part.

    Thank you, Lisa — it’s been wildly interesting, although most of the time it’s felt like Shelley Berman’s famous definition of flying: Hours of boredom interrupted my moments of stark terror. But I’ve met more than my share of fascinating people, including you and Scott.

    Everett, if there’s a book, it’s probably about the emotional curve of doing this day by day, with some of the pieces dropped in. But once it’s over, I’m not sure I’ll want to revisit it — there have already been a couple of times when it got a little desperate, and we’re not even finished with the first month.

    Hi, Karen, and thanks for stopping by. O’Toole is one of the few people I’ve never met whom I’d really love to meet, although I think I would rather have met him 30 years ago. I’d say, from my own experience, that everything was a competition where Olivier was concerned.

  8. Phil Hanson Says:

    I’m waitin’ for ya to hit on disposable lighters, Tim.

  9. Sarah Says:

    Drink a little do you, Boysie?

    Loved it … thank you much.

  10. Gary Says:

    Fascinating stuff, Tim. Talk about rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous…

    Would you friend Larry be the only actor who has acted posthumously in a Hollywood movie? (Excluding, of course, Bela Lagosi in Ed Woods’ timeless classic “Plan 9 from Outer Space.”) In the equally classic “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow,” Olivier played Dr. Totekopf some fifteen years after his own death.

    I was just wondering if you got to meet up with him then.

  11. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Coming up, Phil — I’m planning an intercultural piece on how their use and image varies from continent to continent — thinking a 12-parter. After that, a history of the scrunchie, those elastic things women use to make pony tails. Almost limitlessly interesting.

    I USED to, Sarah. Hard to believe, but it was YEARS after this that I quit.

    Hey, Gary, are you upside-down? (Gary’s in Australia.) He might hold the “longest dead before release” title. I think Heath Ledger is the current winner of the post-death rave reviews derby.

    Why was “Sky Captain” delayed for so long?

  12. Gary Says:

    Not understanding how you can call me obsessive or nit-picking, I insist on the nice distinction: between (a) completing a movie and then dying before it’s released, and (b) starring in a movie produced after you’re dead.

    Bela Lagosi appeared in scenes of “Plan 9” which were filmed after he’d died – oh, I know, some say it was just the chauffeur hiding behind an upraised cloak and trying to LOOK like Lagosi, but you and I know the truth, don’t we? And Olivier appeared in a film made in 2004 after he’d died in 1989.

    So that’s the difference. And all of this just so you can you evade the question? Did you catch up with Larry again in 2004?

  13. Larissa Says:

    Great story Tim-I think I would have been dead if I’d tried to drink “Larry” under the table so more power to you for, well, not dying. (c:

    With little casual gems like “…so this one I got shitfaced with Laurence Olivier” in your backpocket, I can’t imagine you running out of good material over the next year. 😀

  14. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Gary — didn’t mean to assault you (this time, anyway) — we’re all impressed with how well you cope with being upside-down, down there in Australia. But I don’t understand how that happened — I’d assumed that he shot the film while still living (obviously) and the thing then sat on some shelf for 15 years or so. How? Did the digitally repurpose old footage? (Here’s a melancholy note about our times; a producer had put together a script to star a digitally repurposed Steve McQueen, painstakingly stringing together moments that could be lifted and altered from his films only to drop the project when a survey determined that no one under 35 knows who Steve McQueen was.

    Riss, wish I had a bunch more stories of this caliber, but they’re not really thick on the ground. This is like analysis, though, in that the more I write, the more I remember. So there may be one or two of these a month for the (gulp) eleven months that remain.

  15. EverettK Says:

    Tim: Did the digitally repurpose old footage?

    I almost fell out of my chair laughing. I started out this morning by reading a chapter of Crashed (and damn near ruined my entire morning of work…the damn book is like a bag of potato chips: “I’ll bet you can’t read just one!”) and in Chapter 7 (the one I read), JB is giving Trey a hard time about ‘repurposing’. And then I log in here and just happen to check some of the old blogs comments, and here you are using ‘repurpose.’

    Sheesh.

  16. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    This blog is slowly turning into a repurposing of my entire life. Although, of course, I already do that writing books.

    Glad you’re enjoying CRASHED. The first three readers to respond have been very nice – of course, they’re not going to say they hate it, but their pleasure was at least convincing. Now I need a cover.

  17. EverettK Says:

    Oh, if I hated it I would say so. But au contraire, I love it so far. Admittedly, I’m only through 7 chapters of the 45, but I can’t wait to get back to it, and that’s a pretty good sign of a pretty good book.

    As for the cover, I might attempt something, but not until I finish reading the book so that I know should BE on the cover. However, don’t get your hopes up: I’m quite busy for the next month, and I’m not really an artistic fellow (which is odd, given that my college degree is in art, but that’s a much longer story…)

  18. Book Bird Dog Says:

    How fortunate, lucky, karmic, providential and more, to have worked with Sir Laurence!

  19. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Absolutely, Phil. I’ve had a more interesting life than I probably deserve.

    More star pieces coming up, some of them not so positive.

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